I am in withdrawal

I need my laptop.

Last week, the power input, which was getting loose, finally decided to become fully disconnected. It might have had something to do with the kitten hanging from the power cord. And sadly, when I consulted the repair people I am told the only solution is to replace the entire motherboard, rather than just reconnect or repair the jack.

In the meantime I have become grumpy and withdrawn. I am unable to blog without my bookmarks and properly configured web-browser. I realize how fully dependent I have become on this machine. My reference database is on it, as well as the paper I’ve been working on, all my other work software, photoshop, and various other programs that allow me to be functional from day to day are now out of reach as I await the verdict from the repair shop.

On the plus side, I got about twice as much bench work done today as I usually do, although I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to interpret what I wrote in my notebook in the future (I usually print out protocols).

The question is, if the repair makes it more sensible to purchase a new machine, what should I get? And I can’t get a Mac, just to short-circuit that conversation right there. Too much of the software I need to do data processing is Windows-dependent, and my lab isn’t going to dump thousands of dollars to buy Mac versions. I currently have a Thinkpad, which has been a consistently rock-solid piece of hardware that, while heavy, has always been reliable and fast. I am reluctant to buy a new Thinkpad since they are now made by Lenovo, and don’t know if the quality is convenient.

I will not buy a Dell, because they are loud, ugly, and everyone in our lab who has had one has had catastrophic drive collapses at some time or another. I can take a motherboard death, but losing a drive can be a real pain in the ass. What do people think?

In the meantime I will blog and comment less (and less effectively) as I am rarely near a friendly computer that knows all my passwords and has my RSS feeds handy.


  1. ArtDecoDalek

    Absolutely you can get a Mac, as long as it has an Intel processor. I’m working on a Mac Pro with Parallels Desktop installed, running Mac and Windows programs (big ones like SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005, which run very very fast in Parallels) seamlessly, side-by-side. Works great. Just make sure to get a bunch of RAM (2GB at least, 3-4 would be better).

    The only problem might be if the Windows programs need direct hardware access to something other than USB. USB is supported in Parallels, but serial/parallel ports don’t exist on Macs, so that would be a no-go.

    My quad-core Mac Pro is the best computer I’ve ever used, by a large margin. Blazingly fast and almost impossible to bog down. I haven’t used one of the MacBook Pros, but I expect they are pretty damn fine as well.

    And before anybody starts the “Mac fanboy” crap, I’ve been using and programming in Windows since v3.0, DOS before that. I’m a recent convert, and the Mac is just plain better.

    Also, check out the power connector on the MacBook, it’s a magnetic connector instead of a flimsy plug, and it’s very unlikely to be broken by kittens.

  2. Argonaut

    I won’t buy another Dell laptop because I too had a problem with a 50 cent part, but they insisted the whole motherboard be replaced – for $600!! Cripes, they have sales where you can buy the whole laptop for the same price.

    If you are more worried about losing a drive ($100) than a mobo ($600), then I suggest you are in denial about **backups**. And what’s worse – there’s no cure except for losing all your files. There’s no teacher like experience.

    Oh yeah – recommendation. Find a used pre-Lenovo IBM that’s fast enough for Photoshop (probably from the T40 series; check out the forums at http://forum.thinkpads.com/). Solid, reliable, long lasting (as you point out above) but also thin and light. I’d get one if only the ancient Thinkpad 600X that replaced my Dell weren’t still plugging along.

  3. I don’t have anything useful to say about actual brands of machine, but what I do is go out and buy a few computer magazines and weigh up the reviews. A lot of which are online but that sort of information I like to hold in my hands.

    Is your kitten funded by Exxon or in league with ARAs?

  4. Take a look at Panasonics “Let’s Note” series. I have one (an aging R3) and I love it; it’s light, silent and rugged. At our lab, notebooks are pretty evenly divided between IBM/Lenovo machines and Panasonics, with a smaller contingent of Macs.

    Also, don’t dismiss Lenovo out of hand. As I mentioned, quite a lot of people use them here and they haven’t exhibited any unusual amount of problems, and neither has the service experience deteriorated as far as we’ve seen.

  5. Jim Ramsey

    A few points.

    1. You will be dissappointed to find out that XP won’t use all of the 4GB of RAM. 2GB is plenty for now.

    2. Do buy an external USB hard disk enclosure and put your old hard drive in it. That may be the best way to recover as much as possible out of it.

    3. If you have a desktop machine, there are 2.5 – 3.5 IDE adaptors (44 pin – 40 pin) that will let you read the data off your old notebook drive.

    4. For brands… http://www.notebookreview.com. IBM Thinkpads (now Lenovo) are well thought of for build quality. The business class HP laptops (more expensive!) are also well thought of.

  6. SonOfaTRB

    The MacPro and MacBookPro are definitely the way to go. You can run Windows with all of your current programs and literally have 2 computers in one. Plus the magnetic power connector is a great example of the genius of Mac logic and design.

    Windows owners who trash Macs are in denial…

  7. My sympathies – it is awful to be bound to a desktop machine. But I have found the Lenovo Thinkpads equal to the IBM. Lenovo is taking good care of the name. So no worries. (I am typing this on an X40 running Linux)

    You can run all your PC software on the Mac, however. A friend of mine has a Mac, uses something called “Parallels” and it is flat amazing. Windows apps float on the desktop and work smoothly.

  8. I second the Lenovos. I am the it manager for the company I work at and we use all Dells here and I have few problems, but I know how to work the system if there is one. The Lenovos (formally IBM) are well built for sure.

    If you want to get real fancy then check out the Voodoo line of laptops. However these really are geared towards gamers.

    I personally do not like the HP brand but that’s from some bad personal experiences.

  9. I got a X60 thinkpad last year from Lenovo, and I’m still pretty impressed with it and the quality of the Lenovo support. Way better than the Dells I used to used. I’m happily using it for work with dual boot Linux and Windows XP.

  10. I bought a Toshiba Satellite a few months ago, and have had no problems whatsoever with it, I’ve been very pleased. Keep in mind when buying a new computer, though, that Office 2007 isn’t backwards compatible, that is the only thing that has caused me problems since replacing my old laptop.

  11. I’ll second (third? fourth?) the notion that Lenovo good, Dell bad.

  12. You should pick up a Toshiba Satellite, and counter-intuitive as it may seem, you should buy your computer at a Circuit City. My friend picked one up there and noticed a dead pixel, brought it back, and they exchanged it with no questions asked. Excellent customer service in those critical first few weeks, and the computer has been fantastic.

    Or you could spend more money to get a Mac and… then run Windows on it anyway?

  13. My quad-core Mac Pro is the best computer I’ve ever used, by a large margin. Blazingly fast and almost impossible to bog down. I haven’t used one of the MacBook Pros, but I expect they are pretty damn fine as well

    I’d second that. I don’t use Parallels, mainly because I don’t need to use Windows that much, but when I do use Windows in Boot Camp, it runs flawlessly. In fact, I have XP Professional running on my Mac Pro at home, and you wouldn’t know it’s not a Windows machine if you didn’t see the Apple logo at the bottom of my 23″ monitor. Heck, on a lark, I even installed Vista on my black MacBook. Vista runs just fine on a MacBook, even to the point of the Aero effects working as they should.

    It’s a painless way to switch to the Mac slowly. As over time you acquire more and more Mac software, I’m sure you’d find yourself booting in Windows less and less, until, like me, you only use it when you absolutely have to because there is no Mac equivalent software for some work-related task that you have to do.

  14. Matt Platte

    +1 for the Mac, but they break too. For the bookmarks, I use del.icio.us and can get to ’em from any Internet node. Apparently Firefox lets you synchronize del.icio.us bookmarks with the browser bookmarks but I haven’t tried.

    My feed reader (Google) is similarly hardware independent.

    Nice to have some familiar tools available when the primary workstation is visiting the repair shop.

    Finally, epoxy + copper wire might fix the broken connector.

  15. “And sadly, when I consulted the repair people I am told the only solution is to replace the entire motherboard, rather than just reconnect or repair the jack.”

    Im an IT technician. When they say the only solution is to replace the motherboard, what they really mean is that their techs only have the training for modular replacement – they know the procedure for swapping out the motherboard for a new one, but they havn’t been taught how to fix any type of motherboard fault.

    There is no technical reason you cannot replace the power connector. You need only find someone who is capable of doing so. Someone who knows how to use a soldering iron, and can get your laptop apart and back together again with all the parts in the right place.

  16. Leukocyte

    Ugh, the same thing just happened to me (power input came loose on my laptop) and I couldn’t believe what a stupid design it is to have something so fragile and critical permanently wedded to the motherboard. The repair guy said he “might” be able to weld it for $300, but even that is half the cost of a new laptop. You have my sympathy and empathy. (Just for the record, it was an HP, and my new laptop will most likely be a Mac…)

  17. Rachel

    I don’t have anything useful to say about what type of computer you should get.

    However, once you DO get it up and running, I’d recommend checking out Foxmarks, a Firefox plugin. It syncs your bookmarks to the web, so a) your bookmarks are backed up, b) you can have the same bookmarks on multiple computers, and c) you can access them on the web. It’s awesome.

    Also? Google Reader rocks as an RSS reader. Application-based systems are for chumps.

    Good luck!

  18. Mike M

    You might want to give Google Reader a try. A very nice RSS reader that is easy to use. It keeps everything online as well so I can keep track of what I read both at work and at home.

  19. Ktesibios

    What you’ve described is a common problem in gadgets that use external power supplies. The power in jack is soldered to the PC board but not fixed to the unit’s case. The result is that any stresses applied to the jack (like a kitten playing with the cable) are transmitted to the solder joints. Eventually, either the solder joints break or, in some cases, the foil traces to which the jack is soldered are broken away from the PC board substrate.

    These problems are usually trivial to repair once you’ve got the main board out of the case; all that’s generally needed is a soldering iron and, in case the foil is damaged, a little bit of hookup wire. However, repairing it that way is nowhere near as profitable for the shop as selling you a whole new motherboard.

    Incidentally, Apple is no better about fixing things. Back in the days of the classic Mac, one of my studio clients had one whose CRT display would intermittently go black. The Apple shop said that the only way they could fix it was to replace the entire video board for several hundred dollars. When I got the thing open I found several cold, cracked solder joints on a Molex connector where the CRT harness plugged into the video board (this is not uncommon on machine-soldered PC boards- if the machine isn’t set up correctly things like resistor leads and IC pins, which are small, get soldered OK while larger connections, like connector pins and pot terminals don’t get heated enough to make a good joint). Reworking these fixed the problem.

    The trend in the electronics industry is to design consumer equipment either to be repaired by swapping out entire assemblies or else to be tossed and replaced when it breaks. This philosophy is even infecting the manufacturers of professional gear- meeting a price point through cheap manufacturing is what’s important, never mind considering serviceability in the design process. Skilled troubleshooters and techies are, consequently, a dying breed.

    It’s enough to make me consider my family’s history of short-lived men to be a blessing.

  20. Ribozyme

    I also recommend a Toshiba Satellite (I’m typing this comment in one). They are nicely designed, work very well (I’m using Windows Vista with an Intel Core Duo processor) and I have no complaints whatsoever so far; I only need to add more RAM to the 1 GB the laptop came with, because the machine becomes slow when I have a lot of windows open. I think Macs are overpriced for what they offer (they cost over 65% more than an equivalent (in hardware) Windows machine) and the expense isn’t justified if you want to use mostly Windows software (I think the real quality improvement in Macs is the Mac OS X operating system).

    I don’t quite get what Anne-Marie in Comment #10 meant about Office 2007 not being backwards compatible. I’m currently using Office 2007 and all the programs can open files from previous versions and, when you use the “Save As” command, you have the option to save the file in Office 2007 format (an x added at the end of the 3 letter file extension) which is supposedly more compact, or you can save it in 97-2003 format.

  21. Having done my spell in Dell’s salt-mines, I would recommend buying whichever laptop is cheapest that meets your needed spec. They all fail. Buy something light with decent battery life and you will do as well as anyone else. They all screw you in one way or another. If noise is an issue for you, do some research re a quiet notebook and buy that.

    I’ve found build quality to be uniformly awful across the brands. Now, I usually just buy the lightest model within my price range whenever I need one. If you buy a lemon, so be it; just hope it reveals its tendencies within the warranty.

    As for anyone advising buying a second hand laptop, that’s a big no-no in portable computing.

  22. It sounds as if they’re not going to charge me a lot so it will be a simple fix. But I am excited to read about this parallels program. I don’t think in mac, is the main obstacle, I simply haven’t done the switch and mental adjustment to the different OS. But I do find their design sense, the elegance of the machines, and the simplicity greatly appealing.

    It’s the science that holds me back. If parallels work adequately to allow for the use of PC software, then I see little reason to stay with PC, other than that Thinkpads have served me very well.

  23. James A

    I had both IBM and Lenovo made Thinkpads and i did not notice any quality changes between the machines. So if you can’t get a Mac – that’s still the way to go.

  24. (S)adly, when I consulted the repair people I am told the only solution is to replace the entire motherboard, rather than just reconnect or repair the jack.

    Wow, what a load of lazy-tech bull-puckey! Of course you can repair the jack-mount… a little epoxy and wire and it’s good-as-new. I’ve been a repair tech for nearly fifty years (everything from 2-transistor radios to 10kW industrial servo drives– and laptops since 1985) and have done exactly that kind of repair many times. It never hurts to have a backup and, yes, upgrades are nice– but this situation does not force a replacement.

    — Mikey

  25. If they’re seriously telling you that the only option is to replace the whole board… I’d suggest searching for another tech on craigslist or in any other classifieds, or posting an ad describing your problem. Chances are there’s a freelancing computer science student out there who will be able to fix your problem with a soldering iron for cheap.

  26. Graculus

    I’ll second the Toshiba Satellite suggestion, I know someone that got one a few months ago and it has been a reliable beastie.

    Michael Rudas: Shop time to do the repair is probably more expensive than replacing the MB. It’s not that it can’t be done, it’s often that it’s not worth doing.

  27. I’d also recommend Toshiba / Circuit City. All my laptops are of this sort and I have no complaints. (Well, the wife did spill a tall glass of soda into her Toshiba, and I replaced the motherboard myself, but it was two years out of warranty.)

    I’ve migrated away from Windows apps. I use the Portable Apps suite in a 2GB USB thumb drive, and have no problem getting most of my work into MS Office. (I do have a bit of a problem with the Open Office spreadsheet, but that’s because some of my spreadsheets have 2,000+ items, with formulas!)

    I do recommend getting an external USB hard drive and backing up important folders from your PC. (I keep all my data and media in one folder which is broken into many subfolders. It makes backups a breeze.)

    I tried to purchase a Dell laptop three years ago. Through a misunderstanding Dell charged me for two laptops instead of one, causing me some credit problems. It took multiple phone calls over two weeks to get it straightened out, with the sales person insisting it was my fault and that I would have to “eat” the purchase. I’ll never order from them again.

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